Why Xi Jinping Chose Central Asia for His First Post-COVID-19 Trip

The region has long served as a testing ground for Beijing’s economic and foreign-policy ambitions and is becoming increasingly close to China.

By , a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
China's President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and other participants attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) leaders' summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on Sept. 16.
China's President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and other participants attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) leaders' summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on Sept. 16.
China's President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and other participants attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) leaders' summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on Sept. 16. SERGEI BOBYLYOV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to make Central Asia the site of his first foreign visit since the coronavirus pandemic began is an unsurprising one. The region is one where China can claim lots of foreign-policy successes and is full of countries that will not publicly criticize Beijing. As then-Lt. Gen. Liu Yazhou put it in 2010, Central Asia “is a rich piece of cake given to today’s Chinese people by Heaven.”

Modern China’s relationship with Central Asia goes back to the end of the Soviet Union. Beijing inherited a number of things from the collapse of Moscow’s empire. One was a lesson on how not to dismantle a communist ruling governance structure; the other was a messy border adjacent to one of Beijing’s most sensitive regions. The second became the foundational issue for China’s relations with Central Asia.

For China, the end of the Soviet Union meant that it suddenly found itself bordering four new countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan also emerged, but they did not share borders with China.) The Soviet-Chinese frontier had always been remote and ill-defined, and with the emergence of these new states, there was a need to establish relations, define borders, and attempt to demilitarize what was a messy and ill-defined space.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to make Central Asia the site of his first foreign visit since the coronavirus pandemic began is an unsurprising one. The region is one where China can claim lots of foreign-policy successes and is full of countries that will not publicly criticize Beijing. As then-Lt. Gen. Liu Yazhou put it in 2010, Central Asia “is a rich piece of cake given to today’s Chinese people by Heaven.”

Modern China’s relationship with Central Asia goes back to the end of the Soviet Union. Beijing inherited a number of things from the collapse of Moscow’s empire. One was a lesson on how not to dismantle a communist ruling governance structure; the other was a messy border adjacent to one of Beijing’s most sensitive regions. The second became the foundational issue for China’s relations with Central Asia.

For China, the end of the Soviet Union meant that it suddenly found itself bordering four new countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan also emerged, but they did not share borders with China.) The Soviet-Chinese frontier had always been remote and ill-defined, and with the emergence of these new states, there was a need to establish relations, define borders, and attempt to demilitarize what was a messy and ill-defined space.

This led to the creation of the Shanghai Five grouping, bringing together the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia to help define borders, establish what military presence would exist, what cross-border trade would look like, and how the relationships between China and these new states could develop.

But the entity grew far beyond its initial mandate, and it was so successful (at least from a Chinese perspective) that Uzbekistan was encouraged to join. With Tashkent’s ascension, the name changed and in 2001, it evolved into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Each member joined for their differing reasons. Beijing was always interested in the organization developing a strong economic aspect, something the others were more skeptical of. Ultimately, they all agreed to let it develop as a security grouping focused on terrorism, and it became the first international, security-focused, multilateral organization that China created.

This was a major step forward at a moment when China was still a relatively timid actor on the world stage. Here the country was trying to build something, when in many other contexts it appeared to be trying to still live by the maxim of “hide and bide your time.” But within Central Asia, it was actually not surprising.


Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, China has sought to rekindle the idea of Silk Roads through Central Asia. At the time, the focus was to build pipelines and rail links from the region across China to the eastern seaboard to reach the booming Japanese market that was keen for Central Asian hydrocarbons. However, this rapidly shifted as China’s economy took off and needed more of these resources itself and people saw growing markets they wanted to connect with.

Beijing signed contracts in 1997 and was soon building pipelines in Kazakhstan to get its oil back to China (agreements were signed even earlier with Turkmenistan to access its rich gas supplies, but took much longer to actually implement). In the wake of his 1994 tour of the region, Chinese Premier Li Peng hosted meetings of Eurasian rail ministers to help develop links across the region and open up routes from China. This was a first for Chinese energy firms. Central Asia was a region where China was willing to try out new things.

As well as get access to the region’s rich resources, China’s ultimate goal in Central Asia was to help stabilize Xinjiang province. Beijing was worried about violence in the region, which had links across the border. Militant Islamists were a feature of the scenery in both the region and China—though the degree to which they were motivated by religion or their ethnic identity was difficult to determine. Large-scale violence took place in Central Asia as well as China throughout the late 1990s. China wanted cooperation and support from Central Asian governments to deal with this. As a result, strong and sensitive security links were developed.

But the longer-term answer to these problems, in Beijing’s analysis, was always going to be economic. A benefit of the collapse of the Soviet Union to Xinjiang in particular was a sudden opening up of what had been a landlocked region that had faced sealed borders. Chinese leaders at the time pushed the region to exploit these opportunities. As then-Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen put it (as reported by Xinhua News Agency in March 1993), “the foreign minister urged all border regions [Xinjiang] to further improve their infrastructure and basic industries such as transport, energy and telecommunications to meet challenges they will face in years to come. Border trade must develop into mutual economic cooperation.”

This order was followed, and over the next few years, Xinjiang gradually increased its trading activity of goods with Central Asia. Products from across China would increasingly move through Xinjiang to Central Asia while raw materials and some agricultural products, in particular, would go into China. Much of this was via routes built by Chinese firms, often with Chinese bank loans supporting them.

This was something that was carried forward into Chinese President Xi Jinping’s time, when he decided in September 2013 to make Kazakhstan the site of his first speech laying out his big foreign-policy concept: the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In doing this, he was building off earlier visits by Li and later declarations by leaders like former Chinese President Jiang Zemin or former Chinese leader Wen Jiabao, who in 2012 declared Urumqi the “gateway” to Eurasia.”

Central Asia had always held an important place in Chinese thinking, and Xi decided to stamp his imprimatur on it and take it one step further by globalizing the entire concept.

Central Asia had always held an important place in Chinese thinking, and Xi decided to stamp his imprimatur on it and take it one step further by globalizing the entire concept. But the broader vision of the BRI was something that China had been talking about and doing in Central Asia since the late 1990s.

There was an additional hard security agenda at play as well. Although strong contacts and focus had helped manage the violent threat that China perceived from angry Uyghurs, there were still risks. In the wake of rioting in Xinjiang in 2009, violence seemed to escalate, coming to an embarrassing head in 2013 when an attack was perpetrated in Tiananmen Square and then a year later when Xi visited Xinjiang in 2014, only to be met by an attempted suicide bombing at Urumqi’s train station. In their wake, an already tight security vice clamped down further, and there was an increasing push by China to establish clearer visibility on security threats in the region.

This led to the creation of a People’s Armed Police (PAP) permanent presence being established in Tajikistan along the top of the Wakhan Corridor—the thin strip of Afghanistan which reaches out and touches China, separating Tajikistan from Pakistan. (It was initially developed as a border between the rival Russian and British empires). This was China’s first-known military base outside its borders; it has since more publicly established a naval base in Djibouti and is currently exploring opportunities in other places as well.

The exact dates of the establishment of the base are unclear. From my own research around the region, I started to hear rumors as early as 2012, though it was unclear whether this was just Chinese soldiers patrolling, people misinterpreting what they thought they had seen, or something else. What is clear is that as word of it started to spread in the mid-2010s, Russia started to become agitated. But its public anger was directed more toward Tajikistan than China—bristling at the fact that a Collective Security Treaty Organization partner would allow a foreign base on its territory without informing its partners.

The Tajikistan episode highlights a long-standing, simplistic analysis that is often thrown around regarding this region. There are always dark rumors that Beijing is trying to oust Moscow from the region and that heated competition behind the scenes could escalate. There is doubtless some displacement happening, but the truth is that for both of them, competition over this region is far less relevant than the important geostrategic support they provide each other in their collective confrontation with the United States. Russia has noted it is losing ground and seeking to strengthen its position in creative ways by demonstrating what it can offer, but it is unlikely to do this in a way that would be interpreted as running counter to Chinese interests.

The region is a propitious one for Xi to make his first foreign foray in over two years. He is visiting a region where China has consistently tested out new foreign-policy ideas, where the local governments will go to great lengths to ensure the visit goes smoothly, and where there is an appetite for economic cooperation on all sides.

Although the SCO is widely derided in the West, it has only grown ] during its 21-year existence, and now encompasses almost 40 percent of the world’s population.

From a domestic Chinese perspective, it means Xi has had an easy visit where he rubs shoulders with some of the world’s largest powers (like Russia and India), can showcase his foreign-policy vision (the Belt and Road Initiative), and celebrate China’s contribution to the world of international multilateral organizations (the Shanghai Cooperation Organization).

Although the SCO is widely derided in the West, it has only grown and expanded in remit during its 21-year existence, and it now encompasses almost 40 percent of the world’s population. It is an organization that has important Western allies (like India) as members, reflecting its appeal beyond the club for anti-western authoritarians that it is sometimes described as. For many of its members, the SCO is an expression of the “more just” international order that senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi described to the Russian ambassador to Moscow. It is showing the world that there are options out there beyond the western-dominated order that was created in the wake of World War II.

Central Asia has always held an important place in Chinese strategic thinking. It is a space where China has consistently tested out new ideas and has a web of relations and interests that are tied to some of its most sensitive domestic national security concerns. It is now also giving Xi the final step of his victory lap ahead of his likely third-term coronation at the 20th National Party Congress.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the co-author of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire, with Alexandros Petersen. Twitter: @raffpantucci

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